Saturday, August 20, 2011

Listening Without Hearing: A review of Michael J. Totten's 'The Road to Fatima Gate: The Beirut Spring, the Rise of Hezbollah, and the Iranian War Against Israel'

This new book, the first from Michael J. Totten, the award-winning blogger described by Jeffrey Goldberg as “America’s premier reporter of the Arab states”, is one of several modest strengths and one great, glaring weakness. Throughout the book, which follows Totten’s experiences of Lebanon and Israel from 2005 to 2009, one continuously battles the temptation to do with it what Thomas Jefferson famously did with the Bible, and take a pair of scissors to all the disagreeable paragraphs in order to leave oneself with a much abbreviated but more or less satisfactory refinement. Had Totten or his editors thought to do this for us, a review of measured but warm commendation would have followed below. Alas, like Michelangelo’s David, I can only work with what I’ve been given. 

Totten is strongest, perhaps unsurprisingly, on events to which he was a personal witness, or when speaking directly with other personal witnesses. Thus he has illuminating exchanges with people like Nabil Abou-Charaf, an activist who was being beaten up and arrested for demonstrating against the Syrian occupation of Lebanon when there were “only 200” others doing so; long before the million people took to the streets on the day in 2005 that gave the anti-Syrian ‘March 14’ movement its name. He’s given a tour of the Hizbullah-controlled statelet south of the Litani river by a secular Shia named Leena (“I like to drink and dance on tables,” she said. “So of course I don’t agree with Hezbollah”), who takes him to the unique Alawite village of Ghajar; which is half in Lebanon, half in Israel, and was until 1967 fully in Syria; and to Kfar Kila, a village so close to the Israeli town of Metula that Totten initially doesn’t realise the two are separated by an almost invisible border fence. As the two of them stand close enough to throw “a hand grenade into an Israeli’s kitchen window”, Leena expresses to him the view – perhaps unusual for someone raised in the south - that “[w]e need a peace treaty [and] an open border [with Israel]. Think about what that would do for the economies of both countries”. And he’s driven around the Beirut suburb of Haret Hreik - more commonly known as al-Dahyeh - the “de facto sovereign police state” of Hizbullah, where despite the poverty and all the unmistakeable signs of totalitarianism, Totten surprisingly notices several women “[refusing] to wear headscarves and [opting] instead for tight blouses, spray-on jeans, and knee-high boots”. 

This kind of contradiction within the pro-Syrian ‘March 8’ camp is reinforced when Totten meets Aounists, the peculiar Christian allies of Hizbullah, who tell him they abhor the corruption of the Hariri-Siniora platform but nevertheless “love America”. Or when he meets an outright Hizbullah partisan from al-Dahyeh who tells him, “I like drinking and chasing girls and having a good time”. Or when an official Hizbullah spokesperson, Mohammad Afif, tells him that “Hezbollah sincerely [hopes] for peace and a mutually agreeable settlement between Israelis and Arabs”.

On the subject of contradictions, one of the finer sub-plots of Fatima is the now-famous declension and eventual defection of Walid Jumblatt, the za’im or chieftain of the Druze sect, from radical March 14 agitator to subdued and subjugated March 8 stooge. Totten runs through the conventional explanation: since the Druze, the historical inhabitants of the beautiful Chouf mountains south-east of Beirut, are too few in number to have a realistic chance of a state of their own, their leaders are forever condemned to a weathervane existence; making and unmaking friends as the winds of power shift; “assessing”, as Walid’s father Kamal once put it, “what must be said and what can be said”. Hizbullah’s increasing impatience with Jumblatt after 2005, which culminated in their invasion of the Chouf in 2008 (where, happily, they were annihilated), forced him to revise the anti-Syrian ‘assessment’ he had made after Hariri’s assassination – which was itself a re-assessment of his previous truce with the Assad crime family that had, he strongly suspected, murdered his father in 1977.

Yet Totten’s profile of the man, informed by several personal encounters (including a very enviable lunch at Jumblatt’s mountain palace accompanied by Hanin Ghaddar, one of my favourite Lebanese journalists, as well as Christopher Hitchens, one of my favourite writers, full stop), illustrates that there is more to the man’s politics than mere cynicism and opportunism. In particular, it permits one to be sceptical of the sincerity of his later conciliation with March 8:

“How can we control our own destiny,” he said after inviting us to sit in his salon, “when we have a state within the state called the state of Hezbollah? When we have open borders to all kinds of traffic and weapons and people from Syria to Lebanon? Hezbollah has said it before and will say it now: ‘Thank God the Revolutionary Guards in Lebanon defend the interests of the Iranian Revolution.’ As long as we have this Syrian regime next door, we won’t have a sovereign Lebanon.”

It’s difficult to imagine that any new information surfaced to refute any of the above, or that Jumblatt suddenly un-learnt it overnight. The more likely explanation, as Totten argues well, is that the above is still a fairly accurate representation of Jumblatt’s private position, but the events of 2008 forced him to do what every za’im will ultimately do when pressured: put the interests of the sect first. The Druze may have held off Hizbullah’s first attack, but it wasn’t an enmity that favoured them in the long run. With his dominance of al-Dahyeh to the north-west, the Beqaa valley to the east and everything to the south, as well as the increasing Shiisation of historically Christian areas nearby such as Jezzine, Nasrallah had Jumblatt surrounded, and could sever his economic and military supply chain. Thus Jumblatt switched sides not because of ideology, nor even out of common vanity or venality, but because the alternative was to allow the genocide of his people. Such are the methods by which ‘The Resistance’ consolidates its power.

Totten has, in other words, insight to offer. But he suffers from the one enormous intellectual and moral blind spot that so often afflicts Western observers of the Middle East: he’s unwilling to suspect anything other than the highest and noblest of Israeli intentions. My radar – one must always keep one finely calibrated, especially when reading American writers – had already flickered in the chapters prior to the 2006 war, when Totten visits the border and writes as if the ill-feeling across it were entirely one way:

Hizbullah’s guerrillas were dug into the hills and holed up behind us in Kfar Kila’s houses. I tried to imagine how I would feel as an American if the Taliban controlled territory thirty or forty feet from my house. (p. 89)

Before a single shot is fired, then, we are under no illusion as to whose side our author is on. And then the July War, or the Second Lebanon War, breaks out and Totten’s critical faculties abandon him altogether. At every turn, his apparent intention is not to report the events of the war, but to come up with excuses and apologies for Israel’s behaviour. He reaches without shame for all the classic tropes about ‘purity of arms’, often simply crediting official IDF statements at face value without the smallest curiosity as to their veracity. Much of what he writes has not only been challenged but in fact comprehensively discredited by third-party examinations of the evidence. He thus leaves the reader no choice but to wonder if he is either: i) ignorant, and thus an incompetent journalist; or ii) biased, and thus not even a journalist but a propagandist. 

I think it’s worth going into this in some detail, because Fatima is one of the best examples I’ve seen of an otherwise trenchant analysis compromised to the point of near-uselessness by Israeli exceptionalism. I’ll start with his claim that the “hatred for Israel among Lebanon’s Shia [has] little to do with Jews or Israel” (pp. 100-101). According to Totten, the Shia of the south have no legitimate grievance against Israel of any kind; their irrational animosity being no more than generic Islamic bigotry imported from Iran. I don’t think I bow to many people in my contempt for Khomeinism, and the anti-Semitic filth in which it trades, but for Totten to claim that, in effect, the Shiites fired the first shot is just terrible history. 

After all, it was in 1978 – a year before Khomeini came to power in Tehran – that the Israelis launched Operation Litani, their first full-dress invasion of Lebanon, provoked by the killing of 37 Israeli civilians kidnapped by Palestinian gunmen. Once the Israelis announced their intention to occupy a ‘security belt’ between the border and the Litani river, the PLO simply moved its forces north of the river, with the result that of the roughly 2,000 killed by Israeli air strikes and ground offensives, almost all were civilians. Given that the killings took place in the south, it follows that almost all the dead were Shiites, too. In Robert Fisk’s harrowing account of the invasion in Pity the Nation, as well as describing gruesome scenes of entire families decapitated, delimbed or otherwise dismantled, he notes “at least one war crime committed by the Israelis”: the strangling of four Lebanese peasants by Lieutenant Daniel Pinto; and the execution of a prisoner of war by Lieutenant-Colonel Arye Sadeh (p. 131). Furthermore, in a chilling precursor to what would happen in Sabra and Chatila four years later:

[The Phalangists] forced a large group of Shia men, women and children into a mosque in the village of Khiam and, under the eyes of Israeli officers, machine-gunned all of them to death. Only the persistence of Jonathan Randal of The Washington Post brought this slaughter – a real act of ‘terrorism’ if ever there was one – to light. Yet it made no difference to the Israelis. They publicly praised the Christian gunmen as outstanding patriots who alone had stood firm against Palestinian ‘terrorists’. (p. 137)

Totten makes no mention of any of this, and I think I might know why. For while he quotes six times from New York Times correspondent Thomas Friedman’s rather summary account of the civil war, From Beirut to Jerusalem, he doesn’t once cite Fisk’s far more expansive Pity (though he does begin one chapter with a line from the same Khalil Gibran poem from which Fisk took his title – without, it should be said, clarifying whether he came to it via Fisk or not). Friedman himself makes just one passing reference to what he calls the Israeli “incursion” in ’78 (p. 52), without saying anything about war crimes or the Khiam massacre. Thus it’s possible – on the assumption that he hasn’t read Pity – that Totten simply does not know how disastrous ‘Litani’ actually was, and how rapidly the Israelis had made enemies of a friendly Shiite population.

Proceeding to 2006, Totten makes it his task to convince us that although the Lebanese death toll exceeded 1,100, compared to the 55 dead Israelis, the Israelis were nevertheless the good guys because – as always - they restricted themselves to military targets:

Unlike Hezbollah, though, [the Israelis] were shooting at actual targets. They were not just firing at random toward Lebanese farmland and towns. IDF soldiers on the other side of the border marked specific targets and called in coordinates. (p. 122)

He writes this even while he knows, and indeed has already told us, that these same ‘targets’ included “infrastructure throughout the country, including roads, bridges, and Beirut’s international airport” (pp. 117-8). Ah, says Totten, but this too is Hizbullah’s fault, for launching their attacks from built-up civilian areas:

Perhaps Hezbollah neither knew nor cared, but installing military targets like antiaircraft guns in residential neighbourhoods is against the laws of war. It recklessly endangers the civilians who live there. Meanwhile destroying an antiaircraft gun in a residential neighbourhood with an air strike isn’t a war crime. The laws and conventions of war are absolutely clear about this, and they squarely said Hezbollah was at fault for turning those areas into targets. (p. 133)

It’s here that Totten really trips himself up. He cites a link to the Laws of Armed Conflict (LOAC), and in so doing incurs a serious irony at his own expense. For his website of choice notes that “[t]hree important LOAC principles govern armed conflict – military necessity, distinction, and proportionality”. And it’s exactly in these three respects that preeminent human rights organisations – including not only western ones such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, but even the Israeli B’Tselem – found Israel’s conduct in the 2006 war to be in violation of international humanitarian law. I’ll start with the first two, which are related. 

“Military necessity”, according to the LOAC as cited by Totten, “requires combat forces to engage in only those acts necessary to accomplish a legitimate military objective. Attacks shall be limited strictly to military objectives”. Similarly, distinction “means discriminating between lawful combatant targets and noncombatant targets such as civilians, civilian property, POWs, and wounded personnel who are out of combat. The central idea of distinction is to only engage valid military targets. An indiscriminate attack is one that strikes military objectives and civilians or civilian objects without distinction”. 

A 249-page Human Rights Watch report, Why They Died: Civilian Casualties in Lebanon during the 2006 War, found that after looking at 94 separate Israeli air, artillery and ground attacks that led to roughly half the Lebanese deaths in the conflict:

[T]he primary reason for the high Lebanese civilian death toll during the conflict was Israel’s frequent failure to abide by a fundamental obligation of the laws of war, the duty to distinguish at all times between military targets that can be legitimately attacked, and civilians, who are not subject to attack. This was compounded by Israel’s failure to take adequate safeguards to prevent civilian casualties [...] Israel often, even though not deliberately attacking civilians, did not distinguish between military objectives and civilians or civilian objects as required by humanitarian law [...] Israel also engaged in widespread bombardment of civilian areas that was indiscriminate.

The sheer quantity of munitions fired at southern Lebanon – some 7,000 air attacks along with approximately 170,000 artillery shells and equally substantial naval bombardment – made the very pretence of ‘distinction’ laughable, as did the “extensive” use of cluster bombs (bombs which explode into several further bombs), which are indiscriminate by design. (HRW reports elsewhere that Hizbullah also used cluster bombs.) Israel’s primary excuse for the ruthlessness of its attacks was that it gave advance warnings for civilians to flee, and thus anyone choosing to remain must have been a Hizbullah militant or sympathiser, and thus in either case a ‘terrorist’. For instance, on July 27th, the Israeli justice minister Haim Ramon was quoted by the BBC as saying, “All those now in south Lebanon are terrorists who are related in some way to Hezbollah”. 

The HRW report lists the many serious problems with this argument. For one, Israel often left very little time – in some cases, just two hours - between the issue of a warning and the start of an attack. For another, they rarely gave indication as to which evacuation routes would be ‘safe’, and thus in dozens of cases, civilians were killed whilst dutifully fleeing as instructed. For another, as Israel well knew from its many previous attacks on south Lebanon, there were always going to be certain civilians who were unable to leave, whether due to poverty, infirmity or simple lack of transport. For yet another, “[e]ven if civilians who remained did so because they were Hezbollah supporters – a claim contradicted by Human Rights Watch’s research, which found that most of those who remained behind stayed because they were too old, sickly or poor to leave – Israel would not have been justified in attacking them. The political leanings of the civilian population in a given area or village is [sic] irrelevant as far as their civilian status is concerned”. In summary, even if Israel had issued warnings in a timely manner with safe evacuation routes clearly identified, “those warnings [would] not relieve Israel from its obligations at all times to distinguish between combatants and civilians and to take all feasible precautions to protect civilians from harm”. 

Specifically addressing Israel’s other excuse, echoed by Totten above, that the high civilian death count arose from Hizbullah locating its military operations in built-up civilian areas, the HRW report had the following to say:

Human Rights Watch did not find evidence [...] that Hezbollah routinely located its rockets inside or near civilian homes. Rather, we found strong evidence that Hezbollah had stored most of its rockets inside bunkers and weapon storage facilities located in uninhabited fields and valleys. Similarly, while we found that Hezbollah fighters launched rockets from villages on some occasions, and may have committed shielding, a war crime, when it [sic] purposefully and repeatedly fired rockets from the vicinity of UN observer posts with the possible intent of deterring Israeli counterfire, we did not find evidence that Hezbollah otherwise fired its rockets from populated areas. The available evidence indicates that in the vast majority of cases Hezbollah fighters left populated civilian areas as soon as the fighting started and fired the majority of their rockets from pre-prepared positions in largely unpopulated valleys and fields outside villages.

(For the record, and contrary to the pathetic, self-pitying whines of the Dershowitz-Phillips-Foxman contingent that Israel gets ‘singled out’ for criticism, Human Rights Watch issued a separate report sternly detailing war crimes committed by Hizbullah, entitled Civilians under Assault: Hezbollah’s Rocket Attacks on Israel in the 2006 War.)

Moving on to the question of military necessity, the HRW report notes that:

Israel sought to define a broad swath of civilians and civilian objects as military objectives. Israeli officials and commanders ostensibly recognized the humanitarian law requirement that they could target only military objectives but then unlawfully widened the scope of what they considered a legitimate military target. In doing so they conducted numerous attacks that were indiscriminate, disproportionate, and otherwise unjustified. Such attacks are serious violations of international humanitarian law. 

An Amnesty International report titled Deliberate destruction or “collateral damage”? Israeli attacks on civilian infrastructure elucidates the novelty of the Israeli definition of a ‘legitimate military target’. The list of casualties includes all major airports, seaports, power stations, water and sewage treatment plants and electricity facilities; at least 80 bridges; 94 roads; more than 25 petrol stations; around 900 commercial enterprises; 2 government hospitals; countless factories, farms and supermarkets; not to mention the more than 30,000 residential and commercial properties converted to rubble. Transmission infrastructure for major television stations was destroyed, including the transmitters for Future TV, one of the most anti-Hizbullah networks in the country. Production facilities for such dangerous goods as dairy, plastics and tissue paper were annihilated. The hits to the electrical grid were so total that the entire south of the country was “completely without power by the time the ceasefire was announced”. The damage to water facilities and the resultant lack of clean water were so severe in parts that a spokesman for the UN Children’s Fund predicted that children would start dying if the situation were not immediately rectified. There was even a full-scale environmental disaster after the bombing of the Jiyeh power station caused “15,000 tonnes of heavy fuel oil to leak into the sea”, characterised by the UN Environmental Program as one of the worst ever seen in the region.

Plainly, Israel’s attacks were not “limited to strictly military objectives”, as the LOAC requires. But then, there was no reason to expect they would be, when the IDF Chief of Staff himself, Brigadier General Dan Halutz, was quoted in the London Times as saying that, “Nothing is safe (in Lebanon), as simple as that”. Indeed, Halutz was not a man generally known for his mercy or magnanimity – word also got out that he had ordered the IAF to bomb 10 buildings in al-Dahyeh for every one rocket fired at Haifa.

Which brings us to the third LOAC principle – proportionality – of which Israel was also found to be in systematic violation in the 2006 war. As defined on the website cited by Totten, proportionality “prohibits the use of any kind or degree of force that exceeds that needed to accomplish the military objective. Proportionality compares the military advantage gained to the harm inflicted while gaining this advantage [and] seeks to prevent an attack in situations where civilian casualties would clearly outweigh military gains”. 

Needless to say, any attack that fails the tests of military necessity and/or distinction is a violation of proportionality ipso facto. But the evidence suggests that even where Israel’s attacks met the criteria of necessity and distinction, they overwhelmingly failed the proportionality test. A particularly egregious example concerns Israel’s impeding the transit of humanitarian and medical aid to the very civilian populations for whose casualties it was responsible. As aforementioned, Israeli air strikes destroyed at least 94 main roads, predominantly in the south. Let us suppose for argument’s sake that this qualifies as a military necessity, on the grounds that it tangibly disrupts Hizbullah’s weapons supplies. Let us suppose further – though this is more dubious - that it satisfies the distinction requirement, insofar as a road is not a civilian per se. Even were this the case, the following incident reported by Amnesty International is simply an open-and-shut violation of international law:

On 6 August, officials of UNIFIL again attempted to secure a go-ahead from the Israeli authorities to build a new temporary bridge over the Litani river to facilitate the transport of vital humanitarian supplies to the beleaguered residents of the south. Israel denied permission, warning that any new bridge would also be blown up. According to UN officials, the Israeli military said that UNIFIL engineers would themselves become a target if they attempted any repairs to the bridge. 

Thus the more than 100,000 residents of Tyre, Lebanon’s fourth largest city, were not only denied electricity and clean water, but basic medical aid too. Did this apparent cruelty in fact bring about a tremendous military advantage, as the IDF’s stated policy would imply? The Amnesty International report suggests exactly the opposite:

[Our] delegates in Lebanon saw many roads hit by precision-guided munitions whose warheads created craters 4m – 5m deep and about 7m wide. This cratering has generally been justified as necessary to impede the movement of Hizbullah fighters, but more often than not the craters did not close the road, as they were to the side rather than in the middle of the road. Travel by car remained possible by simply driving round the craters, although it impeded trucks carrying supplies and aid. [Italics mine.]

In aggregate, then, the policy of road bombing inflicted grave harm on over a hundred thousand civilians in return for virtually zero military advantage: the very definition of disproportionality. 

Not that readers of Fatima will once find Totten allowing for any breaches of the laws of war by Israel. It’s odd, to say the least, that a chronicler of the 2006 war should invoke the LOAC so righteously without, apparently, making even a cursory interrogation of the readily available evidence concerning their violation in that conflict. Yet he is, at times, dimly aware of a divorce between what Norman Finkelstein called the ‘image’ and the ‘reality’ of Israel:

Whatever remaining scrap of sympathy or understanding some Lebanese had for Israel’s point of view vaporized after “Qana” was repeated. The Israelis knew they screwed up, and they knew they screwed up badly [...] I told Michael Oren that I’m not normally pessimistic about the performance of Western armies in wars but that this one didn’t look good. (p. 124)

As with his patience-depleting America/Taliban analogy, it’s as if Totten is entirely oblivious to how blatantly he’s signalling his loyalties (the IDF is a “Western” army? Really?). While everything Hizbullah does is unquestioningly described as “terrorism”, when Israel is found systematically violating the laws of war it has “screwed up”, or “screwed up badly”, or its handling of the war has been “inept” (p. 275) or “incompetent” (p. 278). These euphemisms may help him sleep at night, and protect his publisher from the Anti-Defamation League, but one thing they do not do is recommend him as an objective free-thinker. Nobody denies that Hizbullah actively seeks to kill civilians; that they meet Martin Amis’ brilliant definition of terrorists as those who “expend ingenuity” in the killing of civilians. But when Israel is so demonstrably and titanically indifferent to the presence of civilians in its targets, does it really make a difference? How far can the ‘collateral damage’ argument be stretched? With Israel apologists, one sometimes imagines they’d justify the use of a nuclear bomb on a city centre so long as they were sure the pilot was aiming for a ‘terrorist’. Another way of putting the question is: which of the two would you find the more ‘terrifying’ – a home-made Katyusha rocket fired at you from a kilometre away, or a series of Israeli air strikes aimed at your next-door neighbour? (Actually, Totten inadvertently answers this question himself, when he writes, “I wouldn’t want to be anywhere near Lebanon or the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza if sophisticated Iranian-made Zelzal missiles were crashing into the sides of Tel Aviv apartment towers and skyscrapers” – p. 141.)

The subject of Qana is especially instructive as it’s here that Totten’s investigative scruples hit their absolute nadir. Courageously tackling the most controversial Israeli attack of the entire conflict, he unsmilingly quotes the official IDF explanation as though there were no reason not to take them at their word:

IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz apologized for the deaths of civilians and blamed Hezbollah for using them as human shields. (p. 124) 

Never mind what we already know about Mr Halutz: anyone remotely familiar with the IDF’s record on the previous Qana ‘accident’ will know that a policy of such intractable credulity is ill-advised, and indeed the HRW report suggests a story quite different from the Brigadier General’s:

Human Rights Watch researchers visited Qana on July 31, the day after the attack, and did not find any destroyed military equipment in or near the home [in which the 27 civilians were killed]. None of the dozens of international journalists, rescue workers, and international observers who visited Qana on July 30 and 31 reported seeing any evidence of a Hezbollah military presence in or around the home around the time that it was hit. Rescue workers recovered no bodies of apparent Hezbollah fighters from in or near the building [...] The IDF has never released any evidence to support the Israeli air commander’s contention that Hezbollah had fired rockets from the area.

Indeed, to the contrary, the report quotes from an article in Israel’s best-known daily newspaper saying that “[i]t now appears that the military had no information on rockets launched from the site of the building, or the presence of Hezbollah men at the time. The Israel Defense Forces had said after the deadly air-strike that many rockets had been launched from Qana. However, it changed its version on Monday.”

Not for the first time, then, crucial information incriminating to Israel is absent in Totten’s narrative. That article was published on August 1st, 2006 - five years before Totten’s book went into print. Once again, the reader is given reason to doubt whether such a lapse on his part is unintentional. In any event, he manages – as American writers so often do – to cast Israel in far more positive a light than any ordinary reader of Israeli newspapers would know to be accurate.

This fundamental misapprehension about the nature of Israel has the further lamentable consequence of getting Totten into entirely avoidable difficulties with some of his biggest Lebanese interview subjects. He meets Fouad Siniora, the then-Prime Minister, and is utterly unwilling to see his anti-Israel stance as anything but the cheapest demagogy and crowd-pleasing:

He had little choice but to say about Israel what his Sunni constituents wanted to hear [...] Siniora may as well car bomb himself before saying anything nice about Israel, but I doubted he’d have much nice to say anyway. (p. 274)

That belated half-acknowledgment of his missing the point doesn’t acquit Totten of his failure to ask himself why Siniora should have anything nice to say about Israel, or why a constituent of any Lebanese sect should (indeed, with that “Sunni” qualifier, we see him again trying to pass off legitimate anti-Israel grievances as barbarous Islamic chauvinism). If only the Arab masses weren’t so brainwashed, Totten constantly seems to be saying, if only they would take the trouble to think for themselves, they would see at last what a friendly and generous neighbour they really have in Israel.

And if this is embarrassing, then it’s simply mortifying to read of the conversation in which Totten piously tells Walid Jumblatt that Israel would never have been in Lebanon in 2006 if it weren’t for Hizbullah – at which point Jumblatt very patiently and politely points out that the Israelis would never have left Lebanon if it weren’t for Hizbullah; that, indeed, their occupation of the country would be in its 33rd consecutive year today; their ‘South Lebanon Army’ proxy militia still making hostages of the UNIFIL ‘peacekeeping’ forces; their torture chamber at Khiam still amputating the limbs and electrocuting the genitals of its luckless captives. But again, as with Siniora, Totten prefers to listen without hearing, and will not even briefly consider that there might be a real point being made at Israel’s expense: instead, “[Jumblatt’s] family’s long-standing dedication to the Palestinian cause all but precluded him from saying anything nice or even neutral about Israel” (p. 292).

All of this is a real pity, since it jeopardises not just Totten’s individual credibility but the credibility of the wider case against Hizbullah and the March 8 bloc as a whole. As I stated earlier, Fatima has its strengths, and Totten’s stories of being, say, threatened over the phone by the Hizbullah ‘Media Relations Department’, or hassled and intimidated by officials at a Hizbullah iftar dinner, are both useful to know and entertaining to read. But criticism of Lebanese thugs and theocrats that comes at the price of ignoring or exonerating Israeli thuggery and theocracy is neither intellectual nor moral value for money. In his own review of another book in the New York Times, Totten wrote that Beirut was “a doorway to understanding, because to know Lebanon is to know the Arabs”. One might just as easily say that to know Israel is to know the Arabs, but by either measure, the question is left wide open as to Totten’s knowledge of any one of them.

Monday, August 1, 2011

From Bacchus to the bomb: Disquiet and disagreement in Hizbullah's Lebanon

Whoever came up with the idea that the Arabs are a lazy people cannot have been to Beirut. What’s abundantly apparent to the first time visitor is instead their maniacal hyperactivity. Half past midnight on a Wednesday? A fine time to go for a jog along the corniche, in full athletic attire. Follow it up with a couple of whiskies at a bar twenty minutes across town? What could be more natural? There appears to be no time of day, on any day of the week, at which rest is permissible. The traffic is permanently terrifying: indeed, people do not seem to drive in Beirut; they simply point their vehicles at their destinations and rely on everything in their paths to get out of their way. More baffling than the question of when people sleep is whether anybody in fact can sleep amid the snarling cacophony of car horns; the hawk-like screeching of tyres; the pneumatic diesel exhaust fire and the staccato spitting of two-stroke mopeds; not to mention the orgiastic percussion of the uncountable construction sites. That is, when the perfunctory formality of construction is bothered with at all – many are the warfare-savaged buildings converted directly into hostels or shops or restaurants without so much as cosmetic renovation. The bullet holes will have to stay: there’s no time to fill them in. Time, indeed, is understood by the Lebanese in the Shakespearean sense. It’s as though, having been shown up front for fifteen years just how quickly the facts of existence can be snatched from them, they’ve resolved to snatch as much as they can from his ‘injurious hand’ in return. 

At the same time, the hands of the Lebanese can be injurious enough themselves. Indeed, with her fertile slopes, her mounds, her peaks and her valleys, the land of Lebanon sometimes resembles the body of a beautiful but vulnerable woman, grappled on all sides by the groping fingers of greedy aggressors (as well as one time defenders who, upon feeling her flesh for themselves, grew perverted in turn). While some parts of her body are left comparatively unmolested, there are others where one can plainly see the thumbs and fingers wrestling and slipping; pressing and releasing; and sometimes coming to rest side by side with those of fellow assailants. 

Thus one can drive through the pristine serenity of the Matn district of Mount Lebanon, a place of sweeping greenery galaxies apart from the noise and nuisance of Beirut, taking in the crystalline Mediterranean glistening beneath you, and barely even notice as you enter the town of Bekfaya, hometown and headquarters of the Phalange, whose name is not shared with the party of Francisco Franco by coincidence. Founded in the 1930s by the Hitler-smitten Pierre Gemayel, the Phalangist militiamen were the ironic Christian allies of the Israelis in the civil war, attaining infamy for their ruthless programme of ‘cleansing’ against the Palestinians that reached its nadir in the 1982 massacres at the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps. Whilst nowadays they are a demilitarised and somewhat legitimised political party, what’s disturbing about their offices is the large photo of Bechara Boutros al-Rahi, the new Maronite Patriarch approved by Rome in March, that can often be seen hanging directly above the main entrance. After all these years, and all these re-brandings and makeovers, it seems the Vatican still can’t help itself... And then what's simply astonishing about the headquarters in Bekfaya is that the building sits literally next door to a major office of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, another spawn of 1930s European fascism, which calls not for the segregation of the Lebanese and the Palestinians but in fact for the amalgamation of the two, along with the rest of the Levant, into a ‘Greater Syrian’ superstate. 

Phalange office in Beit Chebab with Patriarch's photo above logo
SSNP office next door to Phalange HQ in Bekfaya

Or take Beirut’s Hamra St, where supporters of the same SSNP demonstrated just last Sunday in support not merely of the preservation of the Assad regime - which may have killed as many as 1,600 Syrian civilians since uprisings began earlier this year – but of the extension of the tyranny to Lebanese soil as well. Due to its proximity to the Syrian embassy, Hamra has witnessed a number of similar scenes in recent months: in June, thousands of SSNP sympathisers marched down the street carrying a jumbo jet-sized Syrian flag, and in May the Lebanese army had to be called in to restrain the frenzied brutes from attacking a few hundred courageous men and women demonstrating against Assad’s mass murders. What makes Hamra so invigorating a street, however, is that in addition to being a hotbed for two-bit fascists and Syrian nationalist punks, it is at the same time one of the brightest flames of sophisticated civilisation in the whole country; with its fashion boutiques; its bookstores (of which Antoine is the superlative); and its awning-capped streetside bars full of students, tourists and young professionals that have the feel and buzz of Amsterdam, or perhaps Edinburgh during the Fringe. 

Speaking of students, and not leaving the SSNP just yet, I spent a very pleasant half hour in July strolling through the American University of Beirut off Bliss St, two blocks away from Hamra. Founded by the American Protestant missionary Daniel Bliss in 1866, the extraordinary beauty of the campus, with its forests of dark green and lavender perched over the corniche, prompted a friend to joke that surely now I couldn’t say the religious hadn’t got something right. A point I could almost concede, even if Bliss himself was a bit of a fanatic on the Darwin question (see the ‘Lewis Affair’ of 1882), and even if the whole point of what was originally called the Syrian Protestant College to begin with was to convert the natives to evangelicalism – even if, in other words, AUB could only have become the ‘Harvard of the Middle East’ that it is today by rejecting utterly the theological character that Bliss spent his career trying to impose upon it and by secularising itself to the point where the once-central Department of Religion has disappeared altogether. 

The elevation of spirit this reflection brought on me might well have lasted the rest of the day had I not realised, immediately upon exiting to Bliss St, that hanging directly above my head and in fact stretching the entire width of the street was a banner flying the spinning swastika of the SSNP. Voicing my displeasure to my companions, I was informed that the banner had been there for some time. The sight of students with Che Guevara caps and hammer-and-sickle t-shirts was by no means uncommon on the AUB campus, but one surely didn’t have to be a leftist to take insult at the idea of Damascus claiming such a jewel of Lebanese enlightenment – could it really be that nobody had done anything about this? I hardly needed to ask the question. I already knew what had happened to Christopher Hitchens when he tried to deface a SSNP sign on Hamra St, just as I knew what had happened to the journalist Omar Harqous for the mere act of filming their filthy flags. Suffice to say I myself was not about to tear it down. They hadn’t draped their logo above the entrance to the university by accident: it was a calculated provocation; a boast that Bliss St, like Hamra and an ever-expanding portion of what used to be known as west Beirut, was theirs. That the state can allow them to treat the heart of the capital like a private fiefdom at a time when Assad’s grip on power has never looked more tenuous is a mark of just how much remains to be done before the ‘Cedar Revolution’ of 2005 is completed. 

SSNP banner by the entrance to AUB on Bliss St

But more dispiriting still was my visit to the Roman temple ruins in Baalbek, in the Beqaa valley near the Syrian border. From the idyllic mountain village of Beit Chebab in the mostly Christian area north-east of Beirut, a friend took me on an exhilarating two-hour drive up the winding roads of Mount Lebanon and then down the other side into the Beqaa, where we eventually joined the Beirut-Damascus highway that was the scene of such memorable carnage in Robert Fisk’s Pity the Nation*. After half an hour or so on what was quite literally the road to Damascus, we broke off north into Baalbek. And it was here that things started to change.

Because Baalbek, as it happens, is Hizbullah territory: one of several chunks of the country ruled by the totalitarian Shiite Islamist militia formed in the early 1980s to export the Iranian revolution to Lebanon and subordinate the population to the rule of Tehran. Hence we were scarcely thirty seconds inside the district before being confronted by billboards bearing the mirthless smirk of Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbullah Secretary General, along with the furious glare of Khomeini himself. Every single lamppost in the centre of the dual carriageway bore two identical yellow-and-green Hizbullah flags, along with two placards, one bearing generic Islamic imprecations (‘Allah is great’, ‘There is no god but Allah’, etc.) and the other listing in series the ninety-nine names of Allah (the internal inconsistencies of which gave us much presumably unintended amusement: for example, how can God be at once al-muqadim – the expediter – and al-mu’akhir – the delayer? Or the first – al-awwal – and the last – al-akhir? The evident – al-dhahir – and the hidden – al-batin? The avenger – al-muntaqim – and the forgiver – al-‘afou?). Unlike in Beirut, where the Muslim women wore colourful headscarves if they chose to wear them at all, here every female head was uniformly veiled in black, some even sporting the full burqa, which is an eyebrow-raiser even in the Gulf states. After a long silence, my friend said my own thoughts out loud: “This doesn’t feel like my country”.

Hassan Nasrallah poster, just inside Baalbek

Stepping out of the car at the Roman temples site, I recall my first feeling being one of confusion. I knew where I was, and where I had to get to, but there was some sort of pseudo-musical din in the air, a creepy voice chanting something vaguely tribal through a cheap set of loudspeakers. My Arabic is far from great but even I know what “Ya Amrika” and “Ya Israyeel” mean, and the bad sign that they usually portend. And then we turned the corner to the ticket desk and we saw it: a huge, scowling Nasrallah plastered onto a tent next to larger-than-life images of bearded men firing Katyusha rockets and AK-47s. My Lebanese friends, some of whom looked more stunned than I was, informed me that according to the sign, this was some sort of Hizbullah war exhibition. We resolved to go inside, but only after seeing the temples, and only if we didn’t have to pay anything for it.

Mercifully, the Party of God left the temples themselves alone. Thus we ambled freely through the 2,000-year-old Great Court, under the remaining pillars of the Temple of Jupiter and into the magnificently-preserved Temple of Bacchus - the god of wine (the closest I’ll ever get to a religious pilgrimage) – where a local guide explained to us in painstaking detail the significance of every conceivable etch and scrape in the architecture (tour guides in Lebanon, by the way, are always fantastic value for money: at the cedar trees in the remote hamlet of Barrouk, nearly two thousand metres above sea level, we were introduced to the oldest cedar in the world by a naturalist of Attenboroughian omniscience). When we could bear it no longer – there is, after all, only so much the soul can take about the profound symbolism of locusts, or the terrific importance of the mosaic form – we left to face once more Nasrallah and his lugubrious groans of blood and conquest. 

Stepping cautiously inside the tent, we met a grim-faced young man of about thirty sitting at a desk. My friend asked if we could walk around, and without smiling or indeed betraying any emotion he gestured toward the nearest section. Could we take pictures? He nodded in a way that couldn’t have given me less confidence in the idea. Thus we gingerly proceeded to the ‘Made in Israel’ section, which was a series of large and extremely graphic photos of corpses, presumably maimed in the 2006 war. Wondering what exactly these had to do with Islam, I noticed a picture of Khomeini with the following quote appended: “Had each Muslim poured a pail of water on Israel, it would have been shoved away by the floods”. 

Inside the Hizbullah exhibition at Baalbek

Ayatollah Khomeini poster inside the exhibition

Moving on, we came to a kitchen-sized reconstruction of the Israel-Lebanon border, represented by a wire fence, with a felled Israeli ‘body’ (in what may well have been authentic IDF uniform) on the floor and a crude picture of a sunrise emanating from ‘Palestine’. 

Finally, we entered a sort of mock-bunker with sandbags, machine guns and mortars arranged on the ground and dozens of photos of young men framed on the walls. Of course: al-shuhada - ‘the martyrs’. No militants love their dead more than Lebanese militants. Every faction, both Muslim and Christian, has its shrines. Even the supposedly secular SSNP gets involved, smothering the walls and lampposts of Hamra St with morbid mugshots of Sana’a Mehaidli, the 18-year-old who blew herself up along with two Israeli soldiers in 1985 in what is thought to have been the first female suicide bomb attack. This fetishisation of the dead is less about paying respects and more about the cynical matters of branding and recruitment. As Zeina Maasri writes in her book Off the Wall: Political Posters of the Lebanese Civil War:

It is hard for a youth impassioned by the same cause to pass by these posters without being affected and probably, if only for a brief moment, imagining him/herself in the photograph with his/her name praised as the martyr hero [...] On several occasions, the immediate family of a martyr has asked the party’s media office for posters to be made to honour their loved one as a hero, sometimes going so far as specifying the design of the poster to be ‘like the one designed for the martyr of such and such family’. Consequently, even at their basic informative level these posters acquire a different purpose: that of recruiting potential fighters, encouraged by the ‘noble’ example of their friend, neighbour, relative and comrade. (p.88)

Indeed, the whole exhibition was a naked public relations stunt. If only we’d all been Muslims, or better Muslims, we’d never have got into this mess in the first place. But since we have, just hand us over your sovereignty, your rights, your intellect and your culture, and tomorrow we’ll be dining in Jerusalem. And if you happen to get killed on the way, you’ll become a celebrity. ‘Honour’ shall bemedal your family name (when his eldest son was killed by the IDF, Nasrallah himself thanked Allah for “generously [blessing] my family by choosing one of its members for martyrdom and [accepting] me and my family as members in the holy assembly of martyrs’ families”). 

It also eloquently demonstrated the way in which Hizbullah manages to be both Israel’s greatest threat in the region as well as its greatest asset: a threat because, with its sophisticated arsenal and genuine grass-roots popularity (amongst the Shia, at least), it’s the only armed group in the region capable of visiting anything like a military defeat on the Israelis; and an asset because, so long as they make such pornography out of stupid barbarisms like ‘martyrdom’ and Jew-baiting and Islamism, Netanyahu has to waste very little time indeed convincing his friends and patrons in Washington that Israel is the lesser of the two evils. As I wrote in a previous post, it isn’t just the Lebanese but the Palestinians too who deserve better ‘friends’ than these.


The conventional wisdom has it that Lebanon is a land of ‘contrasts’ and ‘contradictions’. It would be more accurate to call it a land of irreconcilable disagreements. The Lebanese cannot agree on anything of any cultural or political importance: on what ethnicity they are (Arabs? Phoenicians? Druze?); what language to speak (Arabic? French? English?); whether to fight their neighbours or befriend them; what their modern history is (nothing after 1975 is taught in schools); whether they are even a distinct people at all (the SSNP, along with the pan-Arabs and the pan-Islamists, think otherwise). Most obviously, and most importantly, the Lebanese cannot agree on which god to worship, and indeed many if not all of the above disagreements are derived or in some way determined by this one. 

In God Is Not Great, Hitchens wrote of Lebanon that when he first saw it in the ‘70s, “it suffered from a positive surplus of religions” (p. 19). I know of no country on earth that wouldn’t benefit from a reduction in the number of its religions, and none perhaps more so than Lebanon: the state officially acknowledges the existence of eighteen different religious sects – that’s eighteen different indigenous sects - of which the three most powerful are the Maronite Christians and the Sunni and Shia Muslims. The confessional constitution stipulates that each three must be represented in the executive leadership, by the President, the Prime Minister and the Speaker of Parliament, respectively. The country is, in other words, not merely a theocracy but what one might call a polytheocracy: try to imagine the Vatican, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards sharing power on a territory the size of Cyprus and you’d still only grasp half the complexity.

So it’s little wonder, perhaps, that it all exploded so spectacularly. The civil war wasn’t only about religion, but as in Northern Ireland, it was no coincidence that co-religionists stuck together - whether in ‘Christian’ east Beirut or ‘Muslim’ west Beirut. The following is just one example from Fisk’s Pity the Nation that illustrates how viciously combustible could be the sectarian dynamite:

In December 1975, on what was ever afterwards to be known as Black Saturday, four Christians were found shot dead in a car outside the electricity company headquarters in east Beirut. Bashir Gemayel [son of Pierre who became President in 1982, to be assassinated three weeks later] was in Damascus when the news was reported to him. Phalangist officers of the time insist that he told them to kill 40 Muslims in reprisal. Christian roadblocks were therefore set up at the eastern end of the Ring motorway and the first 40 Muslim men to arrive at the Christian checkpoint, some of them travelling with their wives and children in their family cars to homes in east Beirut, were taken beneath the overpass and had their throats cut. When this news became known in west Beirut, Muslim militias followed the Christian example. For hours, civilians of both faiths dutifully queued at these terrible checkpoints at each end of the Ring on the innocent assumption that the gunmen there merely wished to look at their identity papers. Only when they saw the hooded men with blood-covered knives approaching their cars did they realise what lay in store for them. At least 300 Muslims were butchered in this way; an equal number of Christians probably met the same fate. (p. 79)

Things have moved on a bit since these dark days - the PLO has left; the Israelis have left; the Syrians have (theoretically) left - but the parties of god are now more of a menace than ever. After the Taif Agreement that brought about the end of the war in 1990, all of the major militias agreed to disband and disarm except for one: Hizbullah. To this day the Iranian-backed Shiite group stands in defiant contravention of UN Security Council Resolutions 1559 (adopted in 2004), 1680 (2006) and 1701 (2006), all of which order it to surrender its arsenal to the state. As a result of its unrivalled military might, Hizbullah is able to operate a state-within-a-state in the south of the country where even the Lebanese Army hesitates to venture, and where anyone who has other ideas about vilayat-e faqih is dealt with the hard way. Elsewhere, Hizbullah tramples on Lebanese civil society; storming Beirut with guns blazing and bringing the country to the brink of civil war in 2008; toppling the democratically-elected March 14 government in January of this year and, according to the UN-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon, car-bombing the ex-Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005

Religion is their cause, and it is also the source of their strength. Lebanon desperately needs a powerful and sovereign army that can overpower and suppress Hizbullah’s criminals (and carry out its own ‘resistance’ against Israeli aggression). But such a scenario is made impossible, in large part, by the religious divisions within the Lebanese Army itself. As Michael J. Totten writes in his new book The Road to Fatima Gate:

[There are] fears that the army would break apart along sectarian lines if orders to disarm Hezbollah were given. Parts of the army split off into sectarian militias during the civil war, after all, and could easily do so again. Roughly a third of the soldiers were Shia conscripts. Many were more loyal to Hezbollah than to the legal authorities. (p. 178)

Just like that other, related fight to the death between Hamas and Netanyahu’s Shas-infested coalition, this is something that can never be resolved so long as people are prepared to die and kill for their supernatural beliefs. In no other part of the world is it more obvious that, contrary to the endless fatuous babble of the ‘faith community outreachers’ and the ‘interfaith dialoguers’, what the world needs is not more religion but much, much less of it. Of the sights I saw in Lebanon, there was one above all that stays with me to this day. Overlooking the Temple of Bacchus from the Temple of Jupiter in Baalbek, from the right angle one can see the turquoise minaret of a grand Persian-style Shia mosque poking above the wall about half a kilometre beyond the ruins. I had to stare for some time before I could pinpoint what it was that so arrested me about it, and then I realised: it was the stark juxtaposition of the convivial and the austere; the joyous and the anti-joyous. In the foreground, the temple of wine and sex; and in the background, the temple of no wine and no sex. In front, the lovers of life; behind, the lovers of death. Between these two lay all the permutations of the Lebanese character, and everything wrong with it is encapsulated in the repudiation of the former in favour of the latter. Nothing less than the survival of the state depends on the reversal of this decision. 

Shia mosque behind the Temple of Bacchus at Baalbek

* “A huge explosion blasted round the corner of the mountainside, from the crossroads at Mdeirej ridge, the intersection marked on the maps that the Israelis had dropped over Beirut. In a dark brown cloud of smoke, we could see pieces of debris hurled hundreds of feet into the air, but [Bill Foley, Associated Press photographer] jammed his foot on the brake when we saw two Syrian army trucks that had been thrown into a sloping field beside the road. Cars lay smashed beside them, either in a series of large bomb craters or smouldering beside the gorge to our left. ‘Bill, they’re being bombed. For Christ’s sake get out of here!’ There was another devastating explosion. Afterwards, we were to recall our exact words. The most mundane expressions become memorable when they are uttered in panic. I kept on shouting to Foley: ‘Turn the car around for Christ’s sake’ and Foley screamed back: ‘What the fuck do you think I’m doing, you asshole?’" (p. 225)